T. G. (Thomas George) Johnson.

François-Séverin Marceau, 1769-1796 online

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tion, and probably saved by his prompt action both
Jourdan's army and his own corps from disaster.
He at once destroyed the bridge at Russelsheim,
recalled the troops of Bonnaud, and ordered Hatry
to retire behind the Nahe. On the 8th September
he re-united the divisions of Bonnet (who had re-
placed Bonnaud) and Daurier, 12,000 strong, on the


plateau of Dotzheim, near Wiesbaden, and began
his march to the Lahn, Poncet's division still con-
tinuing to lay siege to Ehrenbreitstein. The next
day the garrison of Mayence tried to disturb the
retreat, but was repulsed after a short but severe
engagement, in which, according to the archduke's
memoirs, the French lost two guns. Marceau's
troops marched in three columns, arriving on the
loth September at Nassau, Dietz, and Limburg
respectively. The junction with the main army,
which had crossed the Lahn on the 9th, was effected
the same day.

Under the tardy orders of the Directory Beurnon-
ville had directed a corps of 6,000 men of his Army
of the North on Ehrenbreitstein to relieve the troops
of Poncet, and to commence the regular siege of
that fortress. This corps, under the orders of Castel-
verd, reached its destination on the loth September,
in time only to take part in the general defence of
the Lahn, behind which Jourdan had determined to
offer a stubborn resistance.

On the nth Jourdan and Marceau met at Lim-
burg, and organized the defence of the Lower Lahn,
which was entrusted to Marceau. Two and a half
brigades of infantry, and 100 horse of Marceau's
troops were detached to relieve the division of the
Army of the North before Ehrenbreitstein, while
another half-brigade passed to Bernadotte's division
on Marceau's right. The four remaining brigades
formed a division under Poncet. This division
occupied Dietz, that under Castelverd Nassau and
the river to its junction with the Rhine ; they con-


stituted the right wing, and were placed under

The French line stretched from Giessen to the
Rhine. The united Republican forces on the Lahn
exceeded 50,000, but the cavalry arm was propor-
tionately weak, and the artillery was deficient in
ammunition and means of transport, while the army
generally was suffering from want of food and from
neglect. It was impossible for Jourdan to take the
offensive. He had already sent one of his staff to
Paris to tender his resignation ; receiving no reply,
he had resolved to keep meanwhile on the defen-
sive, without, however, letting his adversary know of
his resolution. The greater portion of his forces was
concentrated towards Wetzlar. It was very neces-
sary, however, to guard Limburg, the other great
approach to his position and nearest to his line
of retreat. Bernadotte and Bonnaud were ordered
to establish themselves here. They occupied the
heights of Offheim, their right resting on Marceau
and their left on the village of Runkel. Further up
the Lahn, Championnet's division crowned the
heights of Altenberg behind Wetzlar, where Jourdan
had fixed his headquarters, and Klein, with a strong
force occupied Weilburg, both to defend this out-
let and to support Bernadotte. Lefebvre, with the
advance-guard, was posted on the left bank of the
Lahn and on the heights in front of Wetzlar, while
Grenier's division defended Giessen and the ex-
treme left of the line.

Marceau's corps de bataille occupied, as we have
seen Dietz (Poncet) and Nassau (Castelverd) ; he


had also a strong line of outposts in advance of these
towns on the left bank of the Lahn and on the
heights of Minsfelden.

The position was an extended one, but a defen-
sive attitude did not allow of any contraction. It
will be seen that had Jourdan made no change
in his first dispositions, he would have been able
to repulse the attacks of the archduke at all

The archduke entered Frankfurt on the 8th
September, and thence advanced his troops in
three columns towards the Lahn, the right against
Giessen and Wetzlar, the centre, under Hotze,
upon Limburg, and the left towards the Lower

On the nth, Marceau wrote the following letter
to Castelverd, a letter which has become historic^
and must be borne in mind when we come to
consider the events of the i6th and 17th.
September :

"You will take up a position with your six
battalions on the heights before Nassau. , . . You
will retire to the right bank of the Lahn the
moment you see the enemy is superior to you.
After placing your troops in position on the heights
of Hinterlahnstein and Nassau, you will defend
the two approaches with the utmost obstinacy, and
you must not think of retreating until your position
has been completely forced, or until you have
received the order to do so."

On the day this letter was despatched Marceau
and Bernadotte had met and prepared together


a combined defence of Limburg and Dietz. Mar-
ceau's intimacy with the future King of Sweden had
been of long standing, there was mutual admiration
and esteem, and the story of their quarrel when
Bernadotte's division was temporarily placed under
his friend's orders is pure fiction. The last efforts
made by Bernadotte to save Marceau's troops
in their retreat on Altenkirchen would alone suffice
to dispel the idle inferences of the newsmongers of
the day on the subject.

The archduke had resolved not to allow the
French army to establish itself firmly in its new
positions, whence it could debouch again into the
Maine valley. His plan was to feign to pass the
Lahn at Wetzlar, but on arrival at Friedberg to
change direction and come to Limburg and there
force decisively the French line. This plan he
now proceeded to carry into execution and to com-
pel, by its success, the French army to quit the
Lahn and recross the Rhine.

On the .^ nth September Kray's light troops
attacked Grenier's outposts and occupied Giessen.
By this Lefebvre was induced to commence a
general action, and his report had the effect of
bringing Jourdan back to Wetzlar and of reinforc-
ing his left at the expense of his right. On the fol-
lowing day Marceau and Bernadotte made a com-
bined reconnaissance, without, however, discovering
the archduke's whereabouts. Jourdan had heard
on this day, the 12th, that the archduke with his
corps de bataille was at Friedberg. This confirmed
him in his opinion that the enemy's main attack


would be directed against Wetzlar or Giessen, and
induced him to withdraw Lefebvre to the right
bank of the Lahn and abandon Wetzlar to the

On the morning of the 13th September, Marceau
wrote the following brief note to Hardy, beyond the
Nahe : " The army is in position on the Lahn. I
comrhand two of its divisions. We are expecting a
battle. We sJiall enter upon it fully determined
to co7iquer or to make the enemy pay dear for
victory. Do the same if you are attacked. With
the troops you command the enemy need never be

A general who enters into action with such reso-
lutions cannot fail to communicate some of his
spirit to his troops, and to wrest a victory from
even a superior and determined enemy. Marceau
had not long to wait, for, on this day, while Klein
sustained a vigorous action at Weilburg, the arch-
duke operated his junction with Hotze at Mottau,
and at once made a strong reconnaissance of the
French position from Runkel downwards. Mar-
ceau's advance-guard was attacked at Minsfelden,
it held its ground tenaciously and gave time to
Bonnaud and Bernadotte to march to its succour.
Marceau took command of the fresh squadrons on
their arrival, and immediately attacked the arch-
duke's advance-guard. He led the charges in
person, and compelled the Imperialists to retire be-
yond Kirberg which he occupied, further pursuit
being prevented by the arrival of Neu's division.

Jourdan, ignorant of what was going on before


Limburg, and fully persuaded that Prince Charles
was still at Friedberg, now made a very grave
error. In his report to the Directory he says he
intends to make the most obstinate resistance on
the Lahn, and to resume the offensive as soon as he
has remounted his shattered artillery. He thinks he
has learnt that the enemy are going to overwhelm
his left ; he purposes, therefore, to concentrate the
bulk of his army in that direction. Jourdan thus
proceeded to pass troops from his right to his left.
While his right was menaced by the principal forces
of the enemy, he ordered Bonnaud to quit the
environs of Limburg for Hasslar, and Bernadotte
to abandon the heights of Offheim and approach
Weilburg, and relieve Championnet who was
to concentrate his division behind Wetzlar.

On the 14th September, the Archduke Charles,
who had by this time entirely effected his junc-
tion with Hotze, made another attack on Mar-
ceau and Bernadotte, the latter not yet having
withdrawn to Weilburg. On the eve of this day
Marceau wrote to Jourdan informing him that he
and Bernadotte had been vigorously attacked by the
enemy who had tried to force the fords of Villemar
but were driven back behind the heights of Runkel
and had likewise been defeated on the right. " We
made a charge which was most successful. The
enemy, though at that moment superior to us in
numbers, retreated in the greatest disorder." He
then goes on to warn Jourdan that the Archduke
Charles is before him, and troops are filing past
in great numbers to the right of the French position.


■*' // will be in this direction that the greatest efforts
will be made." He adds that he expects a battle
to-morrow and suggests reinforcements.

The news of what had taken place at Limburg
•on the 14th reached Jourdan the same day. In
spite of the assurances of the two generals that they
had the archduke before them, he persisted in his
error. Bernadotte's troops were withdrawn, and
there now remained before Dietz and Limburg but
the division of Poncet, 6,000 strong, to cope with
the main attack of the Imperialists directed by the
archduke in person.

On the 15th, after Bernadotte had left, and
Marceau had made a new disposition of his forces,
the light troops of the archduke made a fresh recon-
naissance. Marceau went out to meet them and
drove them back on to Nieder-Brechen. His position
on the eve of the i6th September was as follows :
Castelverd's division defended the Lahn from its em-
bouchure to Holtzappel, five battalions of Poncet's
•division were posted around Dietz, while the remain-
ing seven battalions guarded Limburg and carried
on the line to Runkel. Marceau had only 900
cavalry, these he placed in reserve. It was in this
position, and with these numbers, that he awaited
the archduke's attack.

It has been mentioned that Jourdan, disgusted at
the unjust accusations brought against him, had
already twice proffered his resignation to the Di-
rectory. Instead of accepting it, that body offered
to transfer him to the Army of the North, then
commanded by Beurnonville, who should take his


place. At dawn of the great day of the i6th Sep-
tember, Marceau, profoundly affected by the treat-
ment meted out to Jourdan, and himself a prey to
vague feelings of sadness and despondency, sat down
and wrote to his general the following letter, which
not only illustrates his outspoken sympathy, but
shows in what a sublime spirit he went forth to do
his duty on that day :

" The change in the command of the army," he
writes, " now makes an additional reason why I wish
to return to my division. I ask you to grant me
this favour as a proof of your friendship. I am not
in the habit of boasting about my achievements,
nor do I pursue any vain phantom of glory. To do
my duty was always the height of my ambition. I
owe it to myself therefore to seek at this moment
what suits me best, and to give up a command which
I only assumed in the hope of being useful to you
and to the public service, but which I wish to retain
only so long as the army is under your direction.
I have heard with twofold pain both of your leaving
the army and of the new command you are accept-
ing. It is my opinion that after Jourdan has during
three years led, from victory to victory, the army
that he himself formed, he should not, because of a
few reverses, leave us, and thus afford to the evil-
minded the means of tarnishing his glory. I would
far rather have seen you return to the bosom of your
family, there to enjoy the repose you have earned
and the regard you have already merited. You will
forgive me my opinion on this subject; it is dictated,
as you know, by the friendship I bear you. I can-



not fawn on any man, but I am jealous of the
honour of my friends . . . As this letter leaves me
the enemy is attacking. I go forth to the field of
battle, and I will let you know the result."

Kirn j^r%''"

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Online LibraryT. G. (Thomas George) JohnsonFrançois-Séverin Marceau, 1769-1796 → online text (page 19 of 21)